My mother is a National Board Certified High School English teacher with a Master’s Degree in Communications. She is a Fulbright teacher, and has taught English in 3 different countries, for 30 years, at almost every educational level. What she is not, however, is a professional theatre artist.
And yet, if you looked for her last year around February, you’d find her in her high school’s auditorium directing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Her decision to take on this monster of a project came as a surprise to the both of us, but was not totally unpredictable. 3 years ago, the IB Theatre class at her school found itself suddenly lacking a teacher. My mother took on the job armed with nothing but her critical reading skills, her unshakeable passion, and her freshman daughter’s theatre education (and also that Master’s degree).
Little me wanted desperately to share with her the plethora of one-year-into-school knowledge I had: the pages of notes on the Ancient Greeks, the hours of experience I had with Grotowski work, my brushes with Stanislavsky. And she welcomed it. But more often than not, when we sat down to talk, I found myself saying “Well, it’s hard to understand.” I tried doing Alexander Technique work with her, and when I (just a few weeks into my own encounter with the Technique) couldn’t make it click for her, I said “Well, you kinda have to experience it for real to understand.”
Not many of those first conversations went well. And though it would take more than just a few selfish teenager comments to deter her from wanting to teach the course, eventually Mom decided we should stop having the conversations altogether if all they would ever end in was a fight. It clicked for me then that something needed to change.
In 2013, The Public Theatre conceived of an idea called Public Works, which is an event that seeks to “deliberately blur the line between professional artists and community members, creating theatre that is not only for the people, but by and of the people as well.” It works with organizations in all 5 boroughs of New York City to “invite members of diverse communities to participate in workshops, take classes, attend performances, and, most importantly, to join in the creation of ambitious works of participatory theatre.” This is the direction in which the American theatre needs to go. Who are we making theatre for if not the people? Who is making the theatre if not the people? We as theatre artists are not different from any other member of our society. We have merely been trained differently.
Freshman me wanted desperately to be special. She wanted to prove her intelligence, to prove to her family, the world, whoever that she was capable of making Good Art. In my attempt to make myself into A Good Artist, I was heading down the path of becoming the pretentious, self-righteous, totally enclosed and exclusive artist I had vowed in Drama Lit class never to become. If someone who’d never been to the theatre before came to the box office, would I turn them away and say “actually, it’s hard to understand.”? You can’t tell a story to an audience that isn’t there, and what’s the point of speaking to a group of people who are just going to nod their head in agreement and say “yes, we already knew that.”
What the Public is doing is laudable. It is encouraging people who may not have ever been to the theatre to fall in love with it. Or not, but to become involved either way. What better way to ensure the future of the theatre then by sharing it with as many people as physically possible?
It’s terrifying to imaging that I am not special. It’s hard sometimes to share what I know, because if everyone can do what I do, then why am I doing it? But then I remember watching the bootleg version of Sweeney Todd with my mother on the couch. I was abroad in London at the time of performance, but I’m told (multiple times, especially by her) that the live version was even more magical. I remember how it made me feel to see her be proud of creating theatre. My own pride in my own work pales in comparison to the feeling of having shared that moment with her. I understood then why I do theatre: because it is the easiest way to share my passion for being alive with other people. No training necessary. No prerequisite of having rolled on the floor for x number of hours. Passion is the one thing you don’t need to go to school for.
All freshman me wanted to do was share her passion, but that desire for connection was interrupted by the need to feel special. My mother gave me the opportunity to learn that I feel the most special when I can share this thing I love with other people who discover they just might love it to. Now, 3 years later, she and I can talk about theatre from morning coffee to lights out.
So thanks, Mom, for saving my art.